How to sell anything like the Wolf of Wall Street

It’s not as good as it looks.
It’s not as good as it looks.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Cybulski
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The Wolf of Wall Street could sell anything. In a showroom of Teslas he could sell a used Saturn. At a Michelin-starred restaurant he could talk you into leaving for a McChicken. He could sell a BlackBerry to Steve Jobs and an Old Navy blouse to Anna Wintour. Instead of Black Panther, he could convince you to see Fifty Shades Freed.

If you asked Jordan Belfort to boil his success down to a single word, it would be tonality. Tonality is the range of tones Belfort adopts when he wants you to guide you, to confide in you, to let you know he really, truly cares. Belfort believes there are 10 basic tonalities that everyone knows, but few consciously employ.

These tonalities are the keys to human emotion, capable of unlocking our most intimate hopes, dreams, desires, and fears. Certainty is powerful, confident, and straight from the gut; sincerity unctuous and silky smooth; urgency conveyed in hushed syllables. I know this because I and hundreds of others are learning it at a Jordan Belfort Sales Master Class, from the real Wolf of Wall Street himself.

By now most people know Belfort’s story (paywall). He arrived on Wall Street as a stockbroker in his 20s, only to be laid off almost immediately during the 1987 Black Monday crash. He landed on his feet with a job at Stratton Oakmont, a penny-stock shop on Long Island. He quickly gained control of the firm. Aided by an army of brokers and a conspicuous lack of ethics, he made his fortune, built a sex-drugs-and-booze culture even frat boys would pale at, and defrauded investors of millions of dollars.

In 1999, Belfort pleaded guilty to securities fraud and money laundering. He cooperated with the FBI and in 2004 was sent to federal prison in California, where he served 22 months of a four-year sentence. While in prison, Belfort conceived of his best-selling memoir, which he sold to Random House for an advance of more than $1 million. In 2013, the tale was immortalized by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese in a swaggering, Oscar-nominated film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Fame—or infamy—suits Belfort, so it makes sense that he’s chosen the conference circuit for his life’s third act. No matter that he was banned from the securities industry, required to forfeit $10.4 million in assets, or forced to pay into a $110 million restitution fund for his victims (which he has a spotty record of doing). Where lesser mortals might have shrunk into a private life of shame and indignity, Belfort bounced back, a living testament that crime pays if you’re rich, white, brazen, and something of a celebrity.

“We live in a world where shit happens,” Belfort tells the conference crowd, his voice oozing certainty. “It’s the story that you tell yourself about why you can’t get what you want that stops you from getting what you want.” What the real Wolf of Wall Street sells best is himself.

The Feb. 22 master class is an all-day bonanza at the Marriott Marquis in New York City’s Times Square. The cheapest admission (“economy”) costs $400 a head ($500 if you bought your ticket after Feb. 15). Top-tier “platinum” tickets sell for $10,000, which gets you lunch and a photo shoot with Belfort, plus an “exclusive private dinner with Jordan and a small group of high level attendees.” (Ten to 15 platinum tickets were allocated, Anna Urnova, an employee for event organizer Synergy Global Forum tells me, adding that she doesn’t know how many sold.) The schedule lists three master class sessions plus a “coffee service” during registration, which I learn on arriving means you can purchase coffee from the Starbucks in the hotel lobby.

When Belfort takes the stage a little after 9:30am, the crowd cheers. He’s dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a blue-collared shirt, with a figure you might describe as a “dad bod.” We are lucky to be seeing him at all. Just 10 days ago, Belfort tells us, he woke up to find the left side of his face paralyzed by a condition known as Bell’s palsy. “I couldn’t even talk without slurring,” he says.

He called a doctor, who prescribed steroids. Then, a week later, “my voice disappears,” Belfort says, switching to a hushed tone of urgency in the present tense. “I can’t say a word. Complete laryngitis.” He went to another doctor who diagnosed oral thrush, a secondary infection from the steroids, and put him on an antifungal. “So I’m a little hoarse this morning,” he says, sincerely. “But I’m here, and every bit of knowledge I have, I’m here to give to you today.”

The agenda is “Straight Line Persuasion,” a sales method Belfort claims to have pioneered in his years at Stratton, and the subject of his most recent book, Way of the Wolf. The goal of straight line persuasion, Belfort explains, is “being able to close anyone who’s closable.” The master class is guaranteed to increase our closing rate by “at least 40%-100%.” Conference attendees are handed a “participant manual” in bright-orange gift bags bearing the slogan, “Don’t follow the path. Blaze the trail.” Should we have qualms after the day’s first session, we’re invited to turn in everything—manual, materials, and name badge—and get a “full refund, no questions asked.”

The key to straight line persuasion is, of course, tonality. “At the highest level, sales is the transference of emotion, and the primary emotion that you’re transferring is certainty,” Belfort says. The trick is “to sound absolutely certain, even when you might not be feeling absolutely certain,” he continues. “That might sound like I’m telling you to be unethical,” he adds hastily, “and I’m not.”

Belfort is pacing the stage, sucking on a lemon slice and sipping from a can of Red Bull. Perhaps because of the scratchy voice, he’s having trouble engaging the room, which is set for 1,000 but appears only half full. It’s a relief when he tells us to take our first 30-minute break.

The attendees are about four-fifths men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, mostly sporting the same gelled hairdo. The women are almost all wearing heels, faces caked with foundation and mascara. Greg Rodriguez, 30, and Melissa Lopez, 28, traveled from California to see Belfort speak. They work for Bail Hotline Bail Bonds and the company sponsored the trip as a reward for top performers. “I like how real he is,” says Lopez. “It’s a lot of things that we do in our daily basis but we haven’t formulated it like he has,” Rodriguez adds.

Scott Lutrus, 29, who started a company called Blue Ribbon Nutrition, tells me it’s his second time seeing Belfort speak. “He’s so certain about everything he says and he’s so confident, which goes a long way,” says Lutrus, raising his voice to be heard over Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” A couple is making out in the emptied seats a few rows behind him.

After the break, Belfort cues up a clip from Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the scene where his character sells $4,000 of Aerotyne International penny stock to a guy named John. “I trained Leo in the use of tonality,” Belfort says. He plays the full clip, then starts over, pausing frequently to interject. DiCaprio: “You mailed in my company a postcard a few weeks back…” Belfort: “right, right?” DiCaprio: “…requesting information on penny stocks that had huge upside potential.” Belfort: “Huuuuuuuge. That’s certainty.”

“Watch how perfect this looks,” says Belfort, staring lovingly at the Hollywood likeness that has given him so much. “John, one thing I can promise you,” says DiCaprio. “John, one thing I can promise you,” murmurs Belfort, a raspy echo. “It sounds fucking awesome.”